Sunday December 7: Ieper and Harelbeke
In 2006 when Victor Koolmatrie impersonated an emu and kangaroo to the strains of a didgeridoo on a cold Flanders morning in front of his great, great uncle Rufus Gordon Rigney’s grave I thought then it could never be equalled as an experience. I was wrong. Today was different in many ways yet equally memorable and in some ways at a level I could never have anticipated. Arriving at Harelbeke New British Cemetery the flags of the Ngarrindjeri nation, Australia, Belgium and Great Britain were all flying. We were early so we commemorated William Leggett first.
The last couple of days have been very moving. I was honoured to commemorate William Leggett today.
Placed at the base of Leggett’s grave was a woollen scarf put there by his relatives on Remembrance Day the thinking being that the scarf would keep him warm in the cold Flemish winter. The personal items of commemoration that appear all over the battlefields are truly poignant at times. I gathered the group together and went through the order of service and each of their roles. People were already arriving at the cemetery well before 10.30 including Alan Bryce the Australian Embassy representative who replaced our beloved angel Bill Turner as Agricultural Counsellor for the EU, and his wife Nikki, the mayor of Harelbeke, members of veterans’ associations and many others. As in previous years the interest in this young indigenous soldier and what he represents, has been huge. Also with us today were six re-enactors in WW1 uniforms including three nurses. Familiar faces were there from the 2004 event including a rather lanky teenager who four years before was a tiny boy shivering in the cold. More reunions.
We began the service with every student, youth leader and the two Koolmatrie women Belinda and Cathy, placing either a poppy or Ngarrindjeri feather flower at the base of his grave. This was done to the strains of a didgeridoo and the impact was beautiful. From there the service unfolded with Donna Handke outlining how the journey for Connecting Spirits had evolved from her significant role in 2003 and 2004 through to having 32 people now continuing the story. (I have asked Donna for a copy of her speech – it is worth reading and is indicative of the personal growth of this beautiful young Australian. We will include it on the website later)
Centre stage then went to Belinda and Cathy and like their younger brother in 2006, shared with all present the impact Connecting Spirits has had on their family and their community. The girls may have not been in a loin cloth with red body paint as Victor had in 2006 but they made a powerful impact with their words and their sincerity. They held each other and all present were in no doubt what this act of reconciliation and commemoration has meant to the Koolmatrie family and their tight knit community. Following the story of this young soldier who was barely 17 at enlistment, a real treat was in store for everyone. Last year Eric Bogle saw the footage from Belgian television where Victor was interviewed after the Harlebeke ceremony. When the interviewer Victor asked what the significance of the ceremony was and what it meant to him, Victor’s response became the inspiration for new song titled “Lost Soul”. In the words of this young man … “It is all about connecting lost souls and bringing them home to country.”
Today Bogle’s song “Lost Soul” was sung by Flo. She sat behind Rigney’s headstone with her guitar and sang the rendition of her life. Bogle and Victor would have been truly proud of her. The rest of the service was equally beautiful with wreaths and load of pink roses covering the grave. To end this most precious event Florence belted out the Aussie national anthem with such energy and conviction it was yet another moment for the group. You nailed it Flo! More Kodak moments. There was a happy and satisfied sense of contentment amongst the group as we all wanted this to go smoothly and people were very appreciative of what we had done. Loading all and sundry onto the coach it was off to the town hall for a civic reception with the mayor. A formal welcome by the Mayor made us all feel very important and soon it was my turn. I had arranged for a DVD player to be there so we could play the 2005 “7.30 Report” and the film made by Victor, Belinda and Vernon. For many people who were at the 2004 and 2006 ceremonies this was the first time the footage had been viewed. It brought back memories and was appreciated by all there. Speeches were made and promises to keep alive the connections by the Mayor. She is very keen to establish a more developed link with our schools and those in her region so maybe we could develop something for the future. Presents were swapped and messages of friendship shared. It was a lovely way to finish off our Harelbeke event. From there the group made it s way to the restaurant Johan organised for us for a wonderful lunch of chicken, salad and the famous Belgian frites (chips) with creamy mayonnaise to die for. The mood was relaxed and happy. Alan and Johan made some speeches and I thanked them both for their involvement in making today the special day it was.
En route back to the hotel we dropped in to see the unique memorial to William Leggett adorned with copper pieces designed by the local children. There is a mirror copy of this in Lismore the original home of Leggett. The drive back was very quiet as everyone caught up on a bit of shuteye. However the day was not yet over in terms of the emotional merry go round. Tonight would be our group’s turn at the Menin Gate and it was right up there in terms of highlights. The whole group assembled without coats (in the freezing night) and we made a real impact in our European wasp tops. The kids chosen by the student body to represent all of us felt very special: Beth Jurgs and Tristan Smith were the stand out choices for the readers of The Ode, Michelle Crossman and Hayden Biddle carried the wreath followed by Kate Ford with our group’s photo card and James Ferguson held an Australian flag to complete the montage. Tristan and Beth read The ode with such power and strength I was so proud of them. What beautiful kids. As the Last Post ceremony proceeded with all of the traditions and rituals that have been in place since its inception in 1929 the most amazing bit was to come. We asked the organiser if Flo could sing the national anthem and so there she was under the memorial with 55,000 allied names carved into its white walls. This place is a global symbol of Remembrance and its story encapsulates all that is the Great War. So many names, so many stories of loss and grief. As Flo geared herself up for the performance of a lifetime under this beautiful mausoleum, her voice was pure and strong. The acoustics were perfect and the impact spine tingling. Her rendition of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ made many of those around us not part of our group shed tears. Afterwards lots of people came up to us wanting to know who we were and what we were doing. A group of elderly men and women from the UK were in raptures. They were really keen to know all about “Connecting Spirits” and we discovered they were staying in the same hotel as us. They were surprised and the best feedback I had was the fact that they didn’t even know the kids were in the same place as them. Good news as it means our constant reminders about not making noise in hotels was getting through to the kids.
Another surprise as these two guys came over and wanted to talk to us: they were journalists from BBC World Radio. They were doing a story on Ieper and the place of the Menin Gate in its history. Three boys and three girls were questioned about their perspectives on the WW1 story and what ‘Connecting Spirits’ means to them. They were intrigued as to why a group of students and their teachers would travel to the other side of the world to do battlefields commemorations as we do. It was all very exciting really! Back to the hotel for a late dinner and positive anecdotes to share with the group. It had been an enormous day.
In 2006 we saw our friend Victor do an Aboriginal dance. In 2008 we saw our friend Flo sing not only her own song, but that of Eric Bogle as well. I felt privileged to have witnessed BOTH. I was honoured to have been in the ceremony once again, but even more this time, after being asked to say The Ode. It broke my heart when nearly every person at the ceremony who presented a rose, touched the top of the headstone of Rufus as if to say:
“Well done mate.”
For the past couple of days it has been the part that has impacted me. I will never look at my life the way I used to. Rufus Rigney made the experience in Belgium really special. Rest in Peace Rufus.
Today was the commemoration of Rufus Rigney. It was really nice that so many people attended from the local community.
Today we went to the Harelbeke service. I took part in laying the wreath which was a great honour. It was so moving as I was thinking about what my dad went through. Laying that wreath I knew that my dad was watching from above. I knew he was proud of me for representing our country.
I had a great sense of pride today. I felt very honoured to be able to sing at this special service. It felt like I was able to give something back to this man, Rufus Rigney who had sacrificed his life for us. I also felt proud to be a part of ‘Connecting Spirits’. We are doing something really worth while and it was so humbling to know that our Belgian friends wanted to be a part of that too.
Some general reflections from group members –
As I look over the photos it is a paradox. It seems only like yesterday we started but then some photos feel like they were taken weeks ago. We have seen and felt so much in a short space of time that perceptions are altered. I feel drained; even after a good sleep, I am emotionally exhausted. The stories are no less poignant the second time around, in fact with more background knowledge they are sometimes even harder to listen to. The fact that the whole family is here adds to the emotion. Hamish has shown great character in the way he is there for Beth. I am sure that this experience will enrich their relationship for the rest of their lives. It is hard to watch Beth struggle to get through her commemorations without breaking down, but I know that this has real meaning for her and I am proud of that. I have offered to lift some of her burden by doing some for her, but to her credit, she is determined to see the job through herself. Flo's rendition of the National Anthem under the Menin Gate is the best I have ever heard and I am sure that it will never be beaten. (PS I watched a DVD of Andre Rieu in Australia while in Holland and he, with his orchestra, belted it out for the crowd. They all had tears in their eyes but they haven't heard anything!!!!) It has been a privilege to meet Yves, his spirit and enthusiasm are infectious and his knowledge unlimited. We are so lucky to have such great contacts over here people such as Johan, Anny De Decker and Rod Bedford make this such a real experience rather than an isolated group of ‘rubber necks’ travelling half way round the world just to ‘see’ things rather than experience them.
I scream as I walk through the ghostly wood. My body comes to a halt and my mind drifts to a different time. I feel my whole body collapse as if I had been hit by something but I am still standing. It was strange as I felt like I was hit by a bus and then nothing. I went numb and I felt like I was falling down from the sky. The pain and throbbing came into my head. I steadied myself and walked on as white as a ghost. Call me crazy but I know what I felt. To me it felt like I was hit by something from the past just to remind me that they are still there, still living the pain.